Exploring Blockchain for Business Events

Author: Michelle R. Davis       

Blockchain is a secure and digitally shared record of transactions that is already being used for airline ticket sales and hotel bookings. It may be years away from becoming a mainstay in event planning, but professionals are mulling its possible uses.

A new way of recording and storing information in a digital format, blockchain gives each entity or person a unique identifier and enables each entity’s information to be shared through a peer-to-peer network. Instead of using a centralized organization, like a bank or government to manage and store content, blockchain uses a digital ledger that decentralizes the storage across a network. This essentially cuts out the middleman in recording and tracking transactions, assets, or other information.

In addition, the information is encrypted and permanent, making it more secure. Once input, the original theoretically can’t be altered, and any updates are noted, said blockchain expert Prabhudev Konana. Konana is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, which has a blockchain initiative. “There are lots of inefficiencies in systems that some intermediary is exploiting,” Konana told Convene. “Blockchain avoids that.”

Experts in the field say identity management is one of the most promising aspects of blockchain, and that attribute can benefit events in a number of ways. For example, an attendee’s information could be stored using blockchain, allowing for a seamless entry to events. Data on everything from an attendee’s food preferences to subject-matter interests could travel along with them for each annual event, eliminating the need to fill out forms when registering each year.

“The idea is that you have a portable identity,” Jack Cutts, director of business intelligence for the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), said. CTA produces CES (formerly known as The International Consumer Electronics Show), which attracts more than 182,000 attendees and 4,400-plus exhibitors. “As an attendee, there is some benefit to reducing my administrative burden,” Cutts said, “of always having to enter all of my information.”

From a conference-planning perspective, there may also be a benefit to being part of a network of shows, all using blockchain for registration and scaling that “portable identity” across events, Cutts said. He envisioned ways attendees might make their information available to a series of events using blockchain for a limited window of time — set to expire after a conference has wrapped up, for example.

The same basic idea — powered by blockchain — has already been used by the United Nations with Syrian refugees who lost their identity documentation when they fled their homes. Earlier this year, refugees at a camp in Jordan were able to buy groceries and have their purchases recorded with an iris scan through a system powered by blockchain.

Each refugee had his or her own identity information — including a digital wallet — stored in the blockchain system, which traveled with them. There was no food voucher that could be stolen, lost, or sold, so the risk of fraud and graft was eliminated. Because blockchain does away with the need for a middleman, no banking system was required to act as an intermediary to facilitate the transactions.

But Cutts said using blockchain in this way for events isn’t something that could just be combined easily with an existing vendor or in-house registration system. “Simply laying blockchain into that in place of a database doesn’t leverage the advantages of blockchain,” he said. Attendees also may be wary of sharing their information through a blockchain system and reluctant to hop on board. For blockchain to really reap rewards, there must be a tipping point where a majority of participants use it, Cutts said. “It’s when the cost of non-participation becomes too hard to ignore,” he said, “that we will see this take shape.”

Keeping Data and People Secure
The encrypted nature of blockchain also makes it appealing around issues of security, said Jennifer Ragan-Fore, the chief events officer for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), whose annual event attracts more than 24,000 attendees and visitors each year. In the event of a cyber attack, a blockchain system could keep attendee and organization data protected and unhackable.

Seth Shoultes, cofounder of event-registration software company Event Espresso, agreed. “Blockchain can be used as a sort of backbone for storing information and keeping that information secure,” he said. “It’s a record of information, but it’s all encrypted.”

In addition, blockchain may help secure the physical aspects of a venue, Ragan-Fore said, ensuring that uninvited or unticketed guests aren’t in spaces they shouldn’t be.

When it comes to ticketing, a blockchain system can make sure that only those who purchased a ticket or are approved to attend an event can gain entry, preventing tickets from being stolen, sold, lost, counterfeited, or traded. That can be especially important at a large event like ISTE, Ragan-Fore said. Some companies, including ticketing company Softjourn, are already working in this arena and use a blockchainbased mobile application to establish identity. A record of the ticket purchase ensures that the pass isn’t being resold or redistributed in some way.

“Blockchain can help with security as well as the verification of people attending an event,” Shoultes said. “The public record of the transaction is encrypted, so personal identities can be kept secure.”

Lessons Learned in Real Time
Angela Ford, event operations manager for the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA), said she sees one possible application in the dealings her organization has with hotels. Each time she approaches a hotel for a rate, she has to input her event’s information, the room-block pickup, and the specs she needs for her event. If there were a blockchain system that all hotels tapped into, she would theoretically only need to input the information once, and it could be shared easily. “It would be like a master account,” she said. “We wouldn’t have to keep creating something ourselves.”

Working with vendors on a blockchain system could also have benefits, where each vendor could pull the information needed from a secure data “block” that contains specs on an event, and payments could be made without the need for credit cards or other financial go-betweens.

While the widespread use of this new information-sharing technology may be years away, some fields are diving in right now, Cutts said. But for late adopters like the meetings industry, there may be an upside. “The use of blockchain is evolving. The nice thing is there will be blueprints from other industries that can be easily exported to the events industry,” he said. “There will be many lessons to be learned.”

Legit Reviews
The problem of fake or paid positive reviews on TripAdvisor and Amazon has made recent headlines. Fake reviews make it difficult for both event planners and potential customers to discern what hotels, restaurants, and services might be their best fit. Blockchain can provide one solution.

A blockchain-based review system would prevent bad reviews from being rewritten, or fake reviews from entering the system, and also allow for more specific searches, said Reinhard Fellmann, the CFO and a partner of Review. Network, a startup site seeking to create an authenticated ratings platform that would also use cryptocurrency tokens to reward reviewers. On the site he’s proposing, event organizers could theoretically search for reviews only from other meeting organizers who might have similar needs, or if their attendees are medical professionals, could filter reviews through that lens.

To learn more about how blockchain is being used in the hospitality and travel industries, visit convn.org/blockchain-travel.